Investigating the Whitechapel Murders #3

Investigating the Whitechapel Murders #3

Despite everyone in Whitechapel being on the alert for a brutal serial killer, for three weeks following the murder of Annie Chapman, the streets of the East End of London were relatively quiet. However, any hope of normality was completely shattered when two women were killed within an hour.

At 1 a.m. on Sunday 30 September 1888, Louis Diemschitz, secretary of the International Working Men’s Educational Club was heading to his home in Berner Street, Whitechapel. As he drove his pony and cart into Dutfield’s Yard, just inside the gates he spotted the body of a woman on the ground. By the light of a candle he saw that her throat had been slashed. Diemschitz left immediately to look for a police officer. PC Henry Lamb, of H Division, was the first on the scene. He sent for a doctor and, whilst waiting, he blew his whistle to keep back the onlookers who had begun to gather. Ten minutes later, Dr Frederick Blackwell and the divisional police surgeon, Dr George Bagster Phillips, arrived and declared the victim dead, although her body was still warm. The woman was lying on her left side, with her left arm extended. She was holding some lozenges wrapped in tissue paper in her hand. Her legs were drawn up with her feet close to the wall, and there was a silk handkerchief around her throat. Apart from the gash in her neck, her body appeared to be intact.


Whilst another constable kept guard, PC Lamb searched the yard before moving onto the club, nearby cottages, water closets and even the dung heap. There was no evidence of a murder weapon. At 1.25 a.m., Detective Inspector Edmund Reid received a telegram about the discovery and hurried to the scene. As head of H Division’s CID, he took over the supervision of the initial investigation, which included examining 28 members of the club, as well as the people in the yard. During the next 24 hours further enquiries were made and police investigated 76 butchers, slaughtermen, sailors on ships in the docks and on the Thames, three ‘insane’ medical students, and even some ‘cowboys’ who were with the American Exhibition. In addition, some 2,000 people lodging locally were interviewed and 80,000 pamphlets issued to householders. Statements were checked and leads followed up.



This extensive and swift investigation led to descriptions of the possible perpetrator, based on a man seen in the vicinity of Dutfield’s Yard on the night of the murder. A local police officer and a member of the public had seen a man talking to a woman, whom they believed was the victim. They both claimed that the man was about 30 years old, and roughly 5 feet 6 inches tall. He had a small brown moustache and, according to one account, light brown hair. The main difference in their testimonies was the man’s clothing. PC Smith stated that he was wearing a black dress coat, white collar and tie and a hard felt hat. However, the other witness reported that the suspect was dressed in a dark jacket and trousers, with a black peaked cap. Both descriptions were telegraphed to all the police stations, and it was later considered that they were describing two different men, and that the woman was not necessarily murdered by either of them. There was a third description of a man who bought some grapes from a greengrocer, but this was also undermined.


Elizabeth Stride’s mortuary photo (Wikicommons)


The victim was identified as Elizabeth Stride. Born in 1843, Elizabeth, whose maiden name was Gustafsdotter, was originally from Torslanda, near Gothenburg in Sweden. She married John Thomas Stride, a ship’s carpenter, whom she had left some time before (John had since died). More recently Elizabeth had been living with a waterside labourer in Commercial Road. At the time of her murder, she was lodging in Flower and Dean Street and was last seen on the evening of 29 September in the lodging house kitchen getting ready to go out. Less than an hour after Elizabeth’s body was found in Berner Street, another gruesome murder was discovered nearby.


At 1.44 a.m. on Sunday 30 September, PC Edward Watkins of the City of London Police walked into Mitre Square, near Aldgate, on his regular beat. He had actually visited the tiny cobbled square, surrounded by tall warehouses, 14 minutes earlier, and nothing had been amiss. This time, however, he came across a sight that shocked him to the core. Near the carriage entrance, he caught sight of the dim outline of a person slumped against the wall. Thinking it was someone in a drunken state, the officer approached with his lantern only to find the body of a woman lying in a pool of blood. Her skirts were pulled up, revealing her badly mutilated body. Her face was severely disfigured, preventing identification. 

PC Watkins ran for help, alerting the night watchman lodging nearby. Within minutes more police officers and a doctor arrived at the scene. The body was photographed before being removed to the mortuary for further examination. The unknown woman was shabbily dressed, with layers of dirty clothing. The police noticed that a piece of linen from her apron had been torn away and was missing. In her pocket there were a couple of pawn tickets for clothing – these were the only clues they had to go on. A short while later, another police officer found a fragment of bloodied cloth a few streets away, above which an anti-Semitic message had been chalked on the wall. Concerned that it might spark a riot, his superiors ordered the message to be erased, before it was photographed.


A copy of the message (Wikicommons)


Labourer John Kelly eventually came forward to confirm that the victim was his common-law wife. Catherine Eddowes was born in 1842 in Wolverhampton, and came to Bermondsey when she was almost two years old. By the age of 15, both Catherine’s parents had died and she was left to fend for herself. Initially she returned to Wolverhampton to stay with her aunt but soon met army pensioner Thomas Conway, with whom she travelled around, earning money here and there. In 1868, the couple, who had three children, were living in Westminster. They stayed together until 1881. After her separation from Conway, Catherine entered into a relationship with John Kelly.

Like Elizabeth Stride, at the time of her murder, Catherine was lodging in Flower and Dean Street. During the evening of 29 September, Catherine had been drinking heavily and was arrested for drunkenness. She was detained in a cell at Bishopsgate police station until she sobered up, and released at 1 am, just 30 minutes before her death. 


Not only did the police now have two more murders to investigate, but there were also two forces involved, as Catherine Eddowes’ body was found in the City of London’s jurisdiction. There are conflicting reports of how the different police officers worked together, but the press were particularly damning of the force’s competence, and confidence in the police was seriously undermined. In addition, letters had started to arrive from the killer himself.


First page of the ‘Dear Boss’ letter (Wikicommons)


The first letter was received by journalist Tom Bulling of the Central News Agency on 27 September. Written in red ink, it taunted the police and expressed the thrill of killing the women. The letter was signed, ‘Yours truly, Jack the Ripper’. On 1 October, the day after the ‘double murder’, ‘Jack the Ripper’ wrote again, this time on a postcard bearing the marks of bloodied fingerprints. As the pressure mounted, the police decided to publish the notes, in a desperate attempt to stop the killer before he could strike again.



Police poster (© Museum of London)



To be continued…




Evans, S. P. & Skinner, K. (2000) The Ultimate Jack the Ripper Sourcebook: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. London: Robinson.

Begg P. & Bennett J. (2013) The Complete Essential Jack the Ripper. London: Penguin



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